Selected highlights from this sermon.
While Paul was in prison, he appealed to Caesar. Nothing was happening. Instead, he encountered injustice and rejection, but that didn’t stop him from sharing the Gospel.
We need to remember that God uses injustice for His purposes and that even in the midst of disappointments and difficulties, God is still working for us.
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If you’ve ever had anything to do with the court system, you know that it can be very unjust. Even though justice is to be supposedly blind and therefore not dependent upon the person, court systems are notoriously involved in lies, deception, pay-offs and political considerations. And today in this message what I want us to do is to see two things. First of all, I want us to see the fact that God uses injustice in court systems for his own purposes and his own glory, and secondly, we’re going to be talking about that which makes God most obvious to the world. We could say it is God at His best. Now technically of course God is always at His best. We know that, but there are times when we look at a situation and we say, “Surely God did that,” and we’re going to see one of those times today.
The passage of Scripture I want you to turn to is Acts 25, and actually to put this in context I need to remind you that the Apostle Paul was in Jerusalem and caused a riot. People falsely accused him. They said that he was guilty of bringing a Gentile into an area of the Temple where Gentiles were not supposed to go. That was false but it didn’t matter. Forty people wanted to kill him, and they said that they were going to fast until they did, and so Paul was taken to Caesarea about fifty or sixty miles away. Caesarea is the Roman place. Jerusalem, yes! Of course Herod was there and so forth, but actually Caesarea was where the Roman courts were and many of the Roman prisons, so Paul is there and a man by the name of Felix doesn’t know what to do with him, and we find at the end of chapter 24 it says these words: “And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison,” and Paul was in prison for two years in Caesarea.
Now the passage in the next chapter, Acts 25, opens with a man by the name of Festus who took Felix’s place. Festus is therefore the new governor. Felix is asked to go back to Rome because they didn’t think that his relationship with the Jews was as good as it should be. Riots were beginning to break out and so Festus has the responsibility of the Apostle Paul. When Festus arrives, he goes to Jerusalem and says to all of the Jewish leaders, “What shall we do with Paul?” They say, “Give him to us,” and we read in the text that they want him because they want to kill him.
What I want us to do is to set up this marvelous story by putting ourselves in the shoes of Festus. What do you do with Paul? He had three options. One was to send him back to Jerusalem, and let him be lynched. That would make the Jews happy and he’d be rid of them. The problem with that is that Paul had appealed to his Roman citizenship, and for a Roman to be taken and lynched by a mob in Jerusalem without a fair trial was not exactly what Festus wanted to have happen.
There was another possibility and it would have been the right one, and that was to say, “Paul, you are innocent of the charges–both the religious charges, and you have no charges against you so far as Rome is concerned. I’m going to let you go. Just promise you will never return here. Get out of the country and stay out.” That would have been the right thing to do but Festus had a problem with that and that is that the Jews would have been very, very angry with him, and he needed to keep a good relationship with the Jews. So the question is what to do.
There was a third option and that’s the one that Paul requested. He requested that he be sent to Rome, but the problem with that is you don’t take a prisoner and send him to Rome along with guards, etc. unless you have some reason to do so, unless there is some charge that you are bringing. So Festus was in a dilemma that he didn’t know how to solve.
Well, he thought bringing a king into the situation (and with that now we’re in the 25th chapter of the book of Acts, verse 13) would lessen his dilemma. “Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus.” We have to stop there for a couple of reasons. First of all, who is this man by the name of Agrippa? Agrippa is one of the Herods. If you were listening last time you know that his great-grandfather tried to kill Jesus and massacred the boys who were two years of age and under in the environment of Bethlehem. That was his grandfather. His uncle put John the Baptist to death. His father is the one, you see, who put James to death with the sword and was planning to kill Peter. So that’s his heritage. So he is given a kingship in the northern area of the country in what was known in those days as Northern Palestine, and he is therefore given the title king by Rome.
So King Agrippa shows up with a woman by the name of Bernice. Who is Bernice? She is his sister (Note: Drusilla, wife of Felix, was also his sister) and because of this incestuous relationship, his kingship was not well received by the Jews, but Agrippa (being a Herod) said that he was a Jew. At least he tried to practice Jewish customs, so what is going on here in the text is this: Festus is saying to himself, “If I can get Agrippa to come and advise me, I might know what to do with this guy by the name of Paul.” So Festus tells Agrippa the whole story and Agrippa says that he wants to see him too. It says in verse 22, “Then Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear this man myself.’ ‘Tomorrow,’ Festus said, ‘you will hear him.’”
Now comes one of the most dramatic stories. I love this kind. This is something like Luther at the Diet of Worms. It’s the kind of setting that you hoped God video-taped, and if things get boring in heaven He shows us the tape, though things will not get boring in heaven, but I’d like to see the tape anyway.
You’ll notice it says, “The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city.” They are coming with all the paraphernalia of royalty. We’re talking about gold crowns; we’re talking about such things as purple vestments, and undoubtedly they were loaded with bling, and they come in here, and who in the world comes in but Paul, and Paul is under arrest. He has chains on his arms. This becomes very clear because later in the speech he says, “Look at these chains.” So you’ll notice it says, “And Paul was brought in.” So there’s Paul.
Historians tell us that Paul was not striking in appearance. Apparently he was short and somewhat balding. Well, that’s not all bad, is it, you guys? He apparently was sort of bow-legged and just not impressive, and so here you have this guy showing up to give his defense in the midst of all of this ceremony and all of these hotshots. And so Paul is going to defend himself, and defend himself he does by giving his testimony, and what I’d like us to do is to look at that testimony, and then we’ll see the response of both Agrippa and also Festus, and then we’ll talk about God and injustice and God at his best.
The Apostle Paul begins his defense and you’ll notice what Festus is concerned about. He is speaking still to Agrippa and says he needs to send him to Rome, but says in Acts 25:26, “I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write.” He’s a guy with a book contract and no idea. What he needs to do is to let Rome know why he is sending this prisoner, and he can’t find any reason so he says to Agrippa, “Listen to this guy and help me out of this mess.”
All right, Paul speaks. You’ll notice that Paul first of all begins by talking about his previous conduct. He says in Acts 26:4 (and of course we have to look at only a few of these verses), “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest part of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.” Paul says elsewhere, “I was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. I could out-Pharisee them all in terms of strictness. Not only that, but I put to death people who belonged to the Church.” You’ll notice it says in verse 9, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme.” He tried to get them to curse Christ, to deny Christ, and in raging fury against them he persecuted them even to foreign cities.
Wow! Killing Christians! Trying to get them to deny the faith! In 1 Timothy 1 when Paul is giving his testimony he says that he persecuted the Church. It’s essentially the same as here but he says (and my translation says), “I was insolent.” And actually that Greek word can be translated, “I was sadistic in my fury.” In other words, what Paul is saying is, “I not only persecuted people and put them through pain, but I loved doing it. I enjoyed seeing people die. I enjoyed trying to torture them to blaspheme the name.”
Now I need to ask a question. Did the Apostle Paul think that he was right in doing this? Was he absolutely convinced that he was right? He was absolutely convinced. There was no question at all. He thought that he was right in doing it, and you know you have people today who believe that they are right.
On Friday, Rebecca and I were here in the city to do some business and we caught a cab, and the cab driver was a Muslim, and as you might have guessed I began to engage him in conversation, and I was trying to explain to him how it was that Jesus died for sinners. And he said Jesus didn’t die. He said the Quran says that Jesus didn’t die, and that’s absolutely right. Sura 4:157 to 159 in the Quran says that Jesus didn’t die; they thought they were crucifying Jesus but they were crucifying someone else. I mentioned to him that Muhammad lived 600 years after the time of Jesus. The New Testament had eyewitness accounts that are even corroborated by secular history–Tacitus and others. It became clear after a while that this discussion was one in which facts would not play any great prominence, but what I did then is what I should have done at the beginning. I appealed to his conscience. The best way to witness is to appeal to a person’s conscience. I began to ask him, “How do you manage sin in your life? Do you live up to what the Quran teaches?” No, he said he didn’t. I asked him, “What is Allah going to do with you in light of the fact that you do not live up?” He said that he would just simply trust Allah. I said, “Do you have the assurance that you are forgiven and that when you stand before God that you will go to heaven?” “No,” he said, “I don’t have any assurance.”
I have to put a parenthesis here because this is very important for all of us to understand. There are people in the world today who are just as convinced, in many respects, as we are that their religion is right, but what they lack is individual assurance. No other religion on the face of this earth can give individual assurance and the reason for that is because Christians are not depending upon their own performance. You see, the problem that you have if you don’t have Christ is simply this: You’re trying your best. You know that you sin, but you don’t know how high God’s standard is and you don’t know what he’s going to do with you when you stand before Him, whereas because Jesus came to die for us as the Son of God, dying for us and paying our penalty, our faith therefore is totally in Him and not our own performance, so it’s not a matter of saying, “I wonder if I am good enough.” We readily admit we aren’t, but that Jesus stands in for us, bearing our penalty and taking our sin upon His shoulders, and then, on top of that, when you believe, you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which confirms that in your heart. The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, so what you always need to do is to understand that there are people who are fanatically committed to their religion (like Paul was, killing people), who do not have assurance. And by the way, before we left that taxi driver, we mentioned that God loved him and we wanted him to understand that, and Rebecca actually also quoted John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
But the bottom line is this: The Apostle Paul in being a violent, sadistic man was absolutely convinced he was right. That was his conduct.
Well, we’d better hurry on to his conversion. You’ll notice that he says he journeyed to Jerusalem (I’m in verse 12 now) with the authority and the commission of the chief priests and “At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice.”
Let me make a couple of comments here. It’s so rich. First of all, notice that the light came and all of them fell to the ground. This was not some kind of private hallucination. Everybody saw the light. Not everyone in the delegation heard the voice. Paul makes that clear, but he hears the voice because this is directed toward him, and the voice says, “Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” A goad is a stick that was used to prod cattle, and so what he’s saying is, “Paul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to resist my will and also I am goading you in an entirely different direction and it is hard for you to resist it.”
Here’s a parenthesis. I believe that the Apostle Paul, when he was putting Christians in prison, when he was trying to get them to renounce Christ, when he was in cahoots in killing them, when he stood there at the stoning of Steven (and the Bible says that they took Steven’s clothes and they laid them at the feet of the Apostle Paul), had moments of deep disquiet in his conscience. You know, when you encounter violent people, you have to understand that one of the reasons for their violence is that they are so interested in defending their faith, but the other reason is to cover a very troubled conscience. People are not willing to take the time to follow their conscience where it leads.
So Jesus said to him, “It is difficult for you to kick against the goads,” and he said, “Who are you, Lord?” Talk about a revelation right there, and the Lord said, “I am Jesus who you are persecuting.”
I get the Magazine of Martyrs, a magazine that comes out periodically, and I don’t read it as often as I should, but as I look at those pictures of people in places such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and when I think of young men who are being asked to dig their own graves so that they can be buried in those graves, here’s a verse of Scripture. It is Jesus whom they persecute. It is Jesus digging that grave. It is Jesus in that jail when people persecute believers.
Well, Jesus revealed Himself to Paul, and then Jesus said, “Rise and stand on your feet because I have appointed you.” Now we have talked about Paul’s conversion and I need to explain that and it will become a little clearer as we now look at his commission. Jesus said, “I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” That’s verse 18, and that’s Paul’s commission.
Boy, we have to stop here now because this is New Testament conversion. What Jesus is saying is, “Paul, I am commissioning you to preach a message that is going to take people from darkness into light.” Why is it that the Gospel is light? We’re talking about the fact that people without Christ live in moral darkness, and they manage their sin. See, one of the best ways to witness to a person (like I did to a Rugby player when I flew over to Europe a few months ago) is to ask about how they manage the failure in their life and how they manage sin, and immediately you are getting to their conscience. The average person is desire driven. Our desires say, “I want to do this,” and then we enlist the mind and we say, “Mind, use all the power that you have to justify what I want to do,” so we rationalize it. We say, “Everybody is doing it. I’m not as bad as somebody else. Other people get by. This is best for me,” and on and on and on. The mind is used to justify the evil that the heart wants to do, so people live in moral darkness.
When you come to the light of the Gospel suddenly you see God. I don’t mean that you see Him physically, but you begin to understand Him and the Holy Spirit reveals the likeness of God to you, and suddenly you are humbled because of your sin, and it is actually coming into the light.
Back out on the farm in Canada we had a very dingy basement and all of the bugs and the vermin (and everything else) that were down there were very, very content until you turned a bright flashlight on them, and suddenly they began to scurry and they were so uncomfortable. That’s the way the world is. It’s content.
A young man said to me on a plane, “I don’t need Jesus. I’m going to do okay in the Day of Judgment.” You’re going to do okay on your own record, standing in the presence of a God who is so holy that if you were standing next to Him it would be like being incinerated by the sun? You’re telling me that your record is going to do it? Blindness! The Bible says that men love darkness (because obviously they need to cover it) rather than light, but Paul is going to preach a message of light first of all, and secondly preach a message that will take people from “bondage to Satan” to “the freedom of God.”
Do not ever underestimate the power of the devil in false religions. He keeps people bound, oftentimes by fear. “You can’t convert, you can’t change your mind about these things,” and of course there are some religions that say if you do we might actually kill you, and so what happens is people are in bondage to fear. They are in bondage to Satan, and Paul is going to be giving a message that turns them from darkness to light. That is his commission, and that’s why Moody Church exists. It exists for many reasons but one is to help people to understand how they can come from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, and that can only happen through the Gospel, and the deliverance of Jesus that He brings through faith in His name.
Now Paul is actually giving this address and lo and behold he gets cut off, and I don’t think he was finished, but Festus couldn’t take it anymore. It says in verse 24, “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind. Your great learning is driving you out of your mind. You are mad.’” Now if I had been Paul I would have said, “Sit down because my sermon isn’t finished,” but Paul was speaking to a king and so he deferred to him and said, “I’m not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I’m speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, for I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.”
Oh, this is so full of meaning. It’s not been done in a corner. Did you know that Christianity is not done in a corner? It’s not some little hidden thing out there. It’s exposed to the light. It’s been investigated by the best of investigators. You know, they always say, “Do you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to take the Bible and we’re going to have a funeral,” but somehow the corpse never stays put. It is always there.
Now what does King Agrippa think of this? Paul says, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe. (Remember Agrippa claimed to be Jewish.) You believe the prophets.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said in effect, “Whether short or long, I sure would like to.”
This has been sometimes misinterpreted by a translation that says, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” That’s probably not what is meant. A better translation is the way I just read it here in the ESV where it says, “Do you think in a brief time you’re going to convince me?” He was probably very sarcastic. What he’s saying is, “Paul, do you really think that in this brief time I’m going to become one of those hated Christians? Are you serious, Paul? You don’t really expect that, do you?” And so that was the response and then they had a little discussion, and afterwards the king and the governor get together, and Bernice is there too. We’re talking now in verse 30 and the conclusion is that, “this man has done nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” If he had not appealed to Caesar he could have been let go, but of course, Festus wouldn’t let him go because of the political fallout, and that’s the amazing story of the Apostle Paul.
Let me just say a couple of things. First, notice how God uses injustice. For two years Paul is in prison for something he didn’t do in Caesarea. Felix leaves him there to please the Jews. What you have is this discussion about him because he hasn’t broken any laws, and so the question is, “What do we do with him?” He appeals to Caesar and that becomes the means for him to get to Rome. Was there any doubt in Paul’s mind that he was going to get to Rome? I don’t think so. Listen, if there was doubt in Paul’s mind that he would get to Rome, he was living in unbelief because if you look in Chapter 23, Paul comes to Jerusalem and the Lord stood by him. In Acts 23:11 it says, “The Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.’”
But here’s what is great. How does God get Paul to Rome? He gets him to Rome by a governor who is too weak-willed to do what he should. He gets him to Rome by a situation with a king who comes and listens to him, and still doesn’t have anything to write about him on the way to Rome, but Paul has appealed to Rome and eventually ends up there. He gets to Rome because there was a mob in Jerusalem that tried to kill him but God didn’t let it happen, and that’s just like God. In the midst of human messes and injustices, there he is, weaving his own pattern, doing his own thing.
Joseph in chapter 39 of Genesis (don’t turn to it but remember that it is there) became an assistant to Potiphar and it says, “The Lord was with Joseph and blessed Joseph.” Isn’t that wonderful? Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempted rape. He was thrown into prison with no attorney to defend him against the wrong that had been done. There was nothing there to give him any idea that any day was going to be any better than the one before it. Do you know what it says in the same chapter? It says, “And the Lord was with Joseph in prison and gave him favor in the eyes of the jailer.” Isn’t that beautiful? God is with us in our promotions and God is with us in our demotions. And He is with us in our injustices, and He is with us in our justices, but God always sticks with His people (applause). Wherever you find yourself today, if you are a believer, God is with you.
There’s a second lesson. I love this conversion story because it is indeed God at His best. You know we can pray for people that they might be healed, but the fact is that only God can take a bad man and make him good, and let me explain why. In behavior modification (where you take people through counseling and so forth) you can say, “Here’s why this behavior isn’t good and you have to start to do that behavior,” but in the end, when the guy has freedom he ends up doing what he wants to do because his desires remain unchanged. Changing behavior is one thing. Changing desire is well-nigh impossible, and remember you and I are desire driven. In the words of the famous Woody Allen, “Whatever the heart wants, the heart wants.” We are desire driven.
Now the questions are, “Where do you get this change of desire? Where do you get this new heart? How does a guy who is insolent (that is to say, sadistic and cruel), and on his way to Damascus, understand that Jesus is the Lord and the Son of God, and have his eyes opened from darkness into light? And by the way, you know it may well be that the reason that Jesus himself appeared to Paul on the way to Damascus and didn’t send an Ananias or somebody else to him, was because nobody else would have wanted to witness to this guy. I mean, really, would you want to witness to Paul who killed Christians? “Hey, Paul, I’m a Christian. Let me tell you why you should be a Christ follower too.” (laughter) Jesus looked down and said, “There’s nobody on earth who has the faith to witness to this guy so I’m going to have to go do it myself,” and he did it up right, didn’t he? Praise God!
Now the point is this: Only God can do that. When we pray that somebody will be healed from cancer and they are healed, that is a wonderful work, but to take a bad man and to make him kind and good is a more wonderful work. For Jesus to heal a tongue that perhaps has disease is a wonderful work, but to take a tongue and heal it so that a cursing man now speaks pure speech, and a lying man becomes a truthful man, now there’s God at His best, doing a miracle that only God can do. To take people and turn them from darkness into light, and from the power of Satan to God, that’s God at His best.
Does “Son of Sam, 1997” mean anything to you? Most of you were born by then. He was killing people and he terrorized the city of New York. Thirteen months later a postal worker by the name of David Berkowitz was arrested, and lo and behold, the Son of Sam was put in prison for life. An inmate witnessed to the Son of Sam and he got on his knees and received Christ as Savior. Just talk to Jim Cymbala about him, because he and Pastor Cymbala have an ongoing relationship. David Berkowitz is now an assistant to the chaplain in the jail. He has never asked for parole because he knows that the crimes that he committed were so terrible that he would not even ask for parole and deserves all of the time in prison that he has coming to him. David Berkowitz says that during the days of his crimes he was like the demoniac in Mark 5, driven by demons and by evil. The more evil the better, and the more pain he could inflict the better. Jesus came to deliver him. Now that is God at His best. Don’t you think that it is? (applause)
I absolutely love the writings of Joni Eareckson Tada, the quadriplegic, and I just want to read a paragraph she wrote. She says, “God is an intruder. He encroaches, presumes, invades, infringes. He crashes the party, tears curtains aside, throws open locked doors, hits the light switch in dark rooms, pulls the fire alarm in a stuffy sacrosanct hallway. He intruded primeval chaos and brought forth light, beauty, order and life.” Well we could go through all of these but then she says, “In the end he will intervene in history, judging the nations, banishing sin and death, setting his throne upon the earth, even as he rules in heaven.” And then she says, “God is a glorious intruder into my life, my thoughts, my pain, my sorrow, my brokenness. The Spirit of the Lord even invades me, taking up residence in my very body. His word is a razor-edged sword, piercing my complacency and, dividing my soul and spirit, he boldly intrudes into my sin, calling it what is, and challenging me to leave it behind.”
God is an intruder, and when He saves sinners like you (and I mean you and you and you) and me, it’s God at His best. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank You so much for the conversion of the Apostle Paul, and it is possible that today there are people who are listening who feel that they are beyond hope, people who look at their sin and say, “There just isn’t enough grace in God’s heart to forgive me.” We ask, oh Lord, that they will see that if Jesus saved Saul who became Paul, He can save them too. Become an intruder in their lives even now.
If you have never received Christ as your Savior, here at The Moody Church today or watching or listening on the Internet or radio, why don’t you say, “Jesus, turn me right now from darkness into light, from the power of Satan to God.” Would you pray that to Him?
No sinner has sinned too much for God’s grace. You can’t out-sin the marvelous grace of God. Receive Him right now. Believe Him.
Father, do Your will we pray, and in those in whose hearts you are working, may they not be like Festus and Agrippa, or Felix, but we pray in the name of Jesus that You will open their hearts to the truth, and may they let You invade their lives. Do that, Lord, because we are needy, and we pray in Your name. Amen.
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